How is it that the work of a Hollywood backdrop artist can still intrigue the computer driven global citizen of our modern fast times? While discovering Detlesfen, I kept asking this question. Upon looking further and longer, his paintings gradually worked their magic.
Paul Detlefsen was born in Copenhagen, Denmark in 1899, the son of a doctor. He lived for 87 year , a commercial artist educated at the Art Institute of Chicago and was a grandfather of two grandchildren. To start his career, he moved to Hollywood where he hoped to become a cartoonist. This fell through for him so he began painting backdrops for Hollywood films. For 20 years he worked for Warner Brothers Studios.
At the height of his time at Warner Brothers, he advanced to the head of the art department. Detlefsen created the background scenery of the film sets, referred to as matte paintings. In 1944, the film“The Adventures of Mark Twain” won an award at the 17th Academy Awards for special effects created by him and his colleagues. Other films of the 40’s that Detlefsen worked on were The Horn Blows as Midnight, Escape in the Desert, and Shadow of a Woman.
Even though Detlefsen was a realist painter, he did not paint from real life. His vast and catalogued file collection of 15,000 slides were his main source for imagery as well as his imagination. He could conjure up scenes from memory of his childhood spent in Illinois.
At Warner Brothers, Detlefsen integrated his realistic landscape paintings with the physical movie sets to create the “matte shot”. Rhapsody in Blue and The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam were more films he took on. In Hollywood, stars like Walt Disney and Bette Davis worked and socialized with him.
By the 1950’s, a shift occurred in his career. He began to lithograph his art images on to calendars, playing cards, jigsaw puzzles, and placemats. His first calendar “The Good Old Days” was published in 1951 and was very successful. “The Good OLd Days” and Norman Rockwell’s “The Boy Scout” calendar led the competition in calendars . Though to “keep up with the changing modern times”, as Detlefsen said, he printed off calendars with mini-skirted go-go dancers.
The appeal of Detlefsen art seems to be how he purposefully represents nostalgia for the past but with restraint. His paintings compare iconic views of rustic, agrarian life with its barns, bridges, streams, trains, and always a small adventurous boy or girl placed interestingly in the landscape. It’s nostalgia without excess or regret and for some the best of a good joke!
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